Tuesday, 31 March 2009 15:36

March 29, 2009 Sermon

“Inconvenient Truths”
John 4:15-29
A sermon preached by
the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 29, 2009
University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

I was speaking with my sister on the phone the other day.  We have a weekly phone meeting.  We find it works best that we schedule each other in rather than let the fates of chance whither away our opportunities to reconnect with each other.  I was recounting the stories of the farm that was in our family for generations, its memories and its dissolution amongst family strife and things financial.   We talked of how generations had fond memories of it for the 90+ years it was in our family.  We recalled canoeing in the pond, picking apples from what was left of the orchard, chasing groundhogs from the garden and having to treat our poison ivy with Fells Naptha soap.

She then asked me what had happened to the farm and I told her it had been sold and how we all were sad to see it go, but no one was able to work it and love it the same way our grandfather did.  Of course, that’s not the whole story.  There was a family business or two involved.  There was family strife due to business dealings and other slights.  There was the ever-present Donley stoicism that one did not cross for fear of the repercussions.  So things were kept close to the chest and we had a veneer of happiness when we all got together.  Most often the veneer held, but at times there were cracks.  It was not okay to talk about the cracks in the veneer.  To hold on to the farm, in part meant dealing with the cracks.  It was better to sell it and continue to leave the cracks in place.  It was somehow easier.

I told this to my sister as if it was the first time she had heard it.  It was not.  But large portions of her memory has been erased by Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT).  It’s dramatic treatment for someone who struggles with emotional strain.  When dealing with severe depression, ECT induces a convulsion which erases the short-term memory.  The theory is that it will press a reset button and the self-destructive thoughts and feelings will no longer be remembered.  All of those inconvenient truths erased.  It has kept her alive and healthy.  

So, we have weekly meetings.  One of the things we do at these meetings is fill in the gaps.  I tell her the stories that we once shared.  They are like new experiences for her.  I joked that the good thing about ECT is that I get to tell you the stories and I always paint myself in the greatest light.  We can ignore inconvenient truths.

Sometimes the real truth is too hard to imagine.  Sometimes it’s too inconvenient.    Sometimes it’s too scary.  

Sometimes it seems easier to ignore it or paint over it.      

When we were in Nicaragua this past summer, our guides drove us through Managua and showed us white-washed walls.  I had remembered these walls from 20 years ago having been filled with popular and revolutionary art.  The art was made by compesinos, poor folk who could express their desires.  In their paintings they imagined a new future for themselves and their country.  Part of that prophetic and artistic imagination included connecting their present struggles with the history of colonialism.   But some of those truths proved too challenging and the next ruling party painted them over, for their world view was just too inconvenient for the power brokers.  

This happens throughout history.  It has happened in church art.  Ancient churches are rebuilt and their art is improved upon to the tastes of those in present power.  Rita Brock in her book Saving Paradise tells of a church that I visited in Rome where the apse held a great depiction of vines and garden images all being watered by the Holy Spirit through the waters of paradise.  There was a cross, but it was empty all but for several doves which are signs of the Holy Spirit.  The implication is that the church’s work is to build paradise here on the earth.  But later, revisionists took a bunch of the birds off the cross and put a crucified Jesus on there.  Was the focus on building paradise on earth too inconvenient?  Might it be more politically helpful to put our goal of paradise as an after death heaven?  Might that make the church more docile, more in line with the state, less uppity?  

Do you have a truth that is inconvenient to someone but incredibly good news to someone else? 

In today’s scripture reading, Jesus has a conversation with a woman at a watering hole.  She and Jesus are of a different nationality and a slightly different religious background.  Jesus, never one big on protocol, spoke with this woman whom it seemed that others had shunned.  Jesus had insights about the woman’s history. 

He knew exactly how many times she had been in unsuccessful marriages.  Many preachers have pointed out that this Samaritan woman must be a “loose” woman.  The truth is that women did not have the power to choose divorce.  A husband could get tired of a wife and say “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.”  And that was that.  Furthermore marriages were often arranged, so the fact that she had five husbands might mean that she had been in five unhappy, unfulfilling relationships and was feeling stuck.  Jesus knew her truth.  Telling it might be inconvenient for those who want to hold back women’s power.  But Jesus was one who embraced inconvenient truths.  In fact, his telling of her truth, exposing her hurt and the possible abuse she experienced freed her to embrace the new truth that Jesus was preaching.  

This truth gave her the ability to claim her place as a wise and great woman.  She came back to her people and said, let me tell you about someone who told me the truth!  What a relief and liberating thing that must have been.  

But it also might have been a bit inconvenient to those who were used to the status quo—where women were to know their place, where enemies were considered enemies, where male privilege is not only tolerated but the law of the land.  But this audacious woman comes in and now proclaims a new truth that we need to pay attention to?  How inconvenient.  Jesus comforted the afflicted, but at the same time he questioned the system that caused her discomfort.  His truth afflicted the comfortable.

There are inconvenient truths out there.  Many of us who were once comfortable, at least not panicking financially have had to face up to some inconvenient truths.  Think about some of these:

It’s no secret anymore that taxpayers if not policyholders have forked out billions of dollars in bonuses to top executives while poor folk struggle to pay their premiums or bank fees.

The problems facing us financially have been in the making for over 30 years since the Reagan administration started bloating the budget deficit and national debt while slashing the tax rates for the high-end earners.    This policy continued under the Clinton and both Bush administrations.  The chickens are now coming home to roost.  And we have not even tackled health care yet.

Like it or not, we are way too dependent upon oil for our energy.  Our geopolitical and military strategy reflects our dependence upon fossil fuels.  A change in this dependency will take decades and a completely new and costly infrastructure.  

Our homes will not fund our borrowing, nor will their value be guaranteed to be lucrative enough to send our kids to college.  

We don’t like these inconvenient truths, but we now have to address them.

Given the colder week, some people are saying that there’s no global warming, only global cooling.  But looking at the Red River and its fast-moving flood weeks earlier in the season than usual seems to indicate that we are in for a long haul.  This once in 500 years flood has happened for the second time in the last 15 years.  And just as there was not political willpower to build costly levees in New Orleans, we see the result of not building sufficient levees in Minnesota and North  Dakota.  

We are building up for a further war in Afghanistan.  I heard Tom Hartmann say on the radio this week that what brought the Soviet Union down was in large part their incredibly costly war in Afghanistan.

I truly believe that terrorism is a real threat that we must address.  But terrorism has been around for a long time.  It has gone by different names.  It was the tactic used in the Crusades.  It was and is the tactic of guerilla warfare and low-intensity conflict.  It is used effectively to destabalize the country and it has worked incredibly well in destabilizing the US.  I also believe that terrorism becomes less attractive when there is food and justice to go around.  One tends not to bite the hand that is feeding them.  Couldn’t we work a bit more on that end?  Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

The state of Minnesota has some real budget issues.  And there are dramatic things being proposed, like unpaid mandatory time off, which is a more palatable way of saying “a 10% cut in wages”.  Another inconvenient truth is that we can’t solve this budget problem without increases in taxes.  But taxes also won’t do it all.  We will have to increase taxes while cutting spending on needed programs that have been cut over and over again.

Our own church is facing a bit of a budget crisis as we approach the coming year.  We know that our income from the UBC Foundation is down this year, given that it is tied to the stock market.  We know that folks are looking at their own tenuous job outlook and their own wage cuts or outright downsizing.  We know that people are struggling to make ends meet.  We want to continue our programs and retain our staff, but we are also realists and know that if giving remains even at the current level, we will have to make dramatic cuts.  Think about that in the coming week.  I don’t like to say this inconvenient truth, but there it is.  

Amidst all of this, remember:

We follow one who represented a beautiful truth of liberty, justice, inclusion and compassion for all.  

It was a truth that was gaining popularity and was getting even the outsiders and the former enemies to pay attention.  But it was inconvenient to the powers that be.  So they did what they all do when someone brings up an inconvenient truth.  They dismissed it, they ignored it and then when it continued to gain ground, they humiliated it, tortured it and crucified it.  

But truth, especially the inconvenient kind, keeps coming back, peskily asserting itself.  It reminds people that the truth will win out in the end.  The long arc of history bends toward justice and God is always on the side of truth.  

Those who were enamored by the truth that Jesus proposed and preached did not go away as the squelchers of truth hoped that they would.  They rose up, feeling all of their God-given and God-inspired liberty and they took their truth to the streets.  The community found its voice and committed their lives to exposing inconvenient truths and surrounding themselves with people who shared a similar counter-cultural worldview.  We call that in religious terms a resurrection.
Sisters and brothers we are the descendants and the inheritors and the caretakers of the truth.  It is a liberating truth.  It’s a holy truth.  It’s a good news truth.  It will be considered inconvenient.  But it is nonetheless a truth to which we are called and it will give life to the people in need.

So find yourself a way to embrace the truth that you know so well.  Find a way to express your truth.  Once you find that truth.  Spread it to someone else.  Show how this truth sets you free and makes you imagine a new way to be in the world.  For the truth that we share is a truth that is good news to all people, even if it is a bit inconvenient from time to time.

May we imagine truth, embrace truth, speak the truth and live by the truth.  And may that truth inspire us to embrace new truth, blessed by God and live as a renewed people.